How much does it cost to fire a superintendent?
So far, about $120,305 … and 86 cents in legal expenses.
That’s the total of invoices received by the Lafayette Parish School Board as of March from Phelps Dunbar for its associates’ work related to an investigation and eventual termination of then-Superintendent Pat Cooper.
The invoices also involve work related to representation of the board against Cooper’s legal challenges, including his wrongful termination claim that’s still pending in state district court.
The board has seen added expenses, too, with the addition last year of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, a private firm, as its general counsel in lieu of the free general counsel services it had received from the District Attorney’s Office.
As general counsel, the School Board has paid the firm $178,247 for services received between the start of the fiscal year on July 1 and Feb. 28.
The firm is considered an expert in education law in the state and represents numerous school districts.
As a result of all of its legal expenses, the School Board busted its $183,000 budget. Since January, the board has twice needed to shift funds around to cover its legal expenses. At least $200,000 in property tax revenues helped pay some bills, while another $105,000 in sales tax revenues will help cover ongoing legal bills.
As the School Board reviews its budget, its inflated legal fund likely will become a topic of discussion. The board’s first special meeting on its general fund — with its estimated $16 million shortfall — is on Tuesday. Interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune had proposed a $100,000 reduction in the legal services budget as one way to help close the funding gap. Those budget discussions will now continue with new superintendent Donald Aguillard, who officially starts May 18.
Board President Tommy Angelle said Friday that the board will need to review how it moves forward with general counsel representation. Angelle said that while the Hammonds and Sills law firm is an expert in the state for education law, he questioned the expense of having the attorneys attend board meetings and provide counsel on daily operations. Angelle is serving his second term, which began in January.
“There’s no question that we need the firm of Hammonds and Sills for any kind of litigation or serious suits, but for every day and routine meetings, I think it bears looking into either — and I’m just brainstorming — having our own counsel or someone that’s less expensive,” Angelle said.
He said part of the board’s discussion on the general counsel issue could involve hiring a staff attorney, which is the practice in Vermilion Parish, or using the district attorney’s services again.
The board dissolved its relationship with the District Attorney’s Office in November 2013 following an assistant DA’s intervention in the board’s request to hire special counsel to investigate Cooper. The assistant district attorney, Roger Hamilton Jr., wrote the Attorney General’s Office that he didn’t think an investigation, and therefore, expense of an attorney, was warranted.
Cooper had proposed hiring a staff attorney during his tenure as superintendent but never officially brought the issue to the board for consideration on the agenda. He also pushed for the board to keep the district attorney on as general counsel and initially challenged the board’s decision to hire the private law firm.
Costs associated with Cooper’s own lawsuit are expected to continue. There had been no filings in the case since February until Cooper’s attorney asked the court on May 4 to set a trial date.
Of the more than $120,000 spent so far, the first invoice of about $90,000 involved not only the Cooper investigation and preparations for his termination hearing but attorneys’ time to defend the School Board against Cooper’s attempts to block three members from voting in his employment hearing.
Cooper’s two-day employment hearing on Nov. 5 and Nov. 6, which two attorneys attended, cost about $22,000. Since then, attorneys have logged hours and billed about $9,000 reviewing and responding to Cooper’s wrongful termination claim that’s still pending in state district court.
In November, the firm increased its hourly fee from $175 to $225, which is the new maximum cap for hourly professional legal services approved by the Attorney General’s Office. The cap was previously $175 until September.
The School Board also will be reimbursed for $2,925 for 13 hours it was billed in error in November, said Dennis Blunt, of Phelps Dunbar . The Acadiana Advocate questioned the 13 hours, which were in reference to Blunt’s travel, preparation for and attendance at Cooper’s hearing on Nov. 7. The employment hearing ended Nov. 6. Blunt told The Acadiana Advocate that the charges were a mistake and that he’d notify the school system’s chief financial officer, Billy Guidry, of the error and reimbursement.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.